Turkana is Kenya’s most underrated county. It is a record holder on many fronts. For starters, it is Kenya’s largest county. At 68,680.3 square kilometers, Turkana is almost three times the size of Rwanda. Located in a corner of this county is Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world. But even more historic is the fact that Turkana is widely considered to be the cradle of humankind.
Despite all these incredible qualities, Turkana has in recent years been mostly known for two things only – oil and famine. While the famines have been perennial headaches in the region, it wasn’t until 2012 that the British company Tullow Oil and its Canadian partner Africa Oil revealed that they had discovered commercial oil reserves in Turkana’s Lokichar Basin.
On August 26, 2019, the oil riches dream appeared to be sailing into life when an earthen brown ship known as Celsius Riga sailed from Mombasa headed for Malaysia. Safely tucked away in this ship were 200,000 barrels of low sulphur crude oil that had been bought by the State-owned Chinese chemicals firm ChemChina. This oil export earned Kenya Sh1.2 billion.
Unfortunately, this oil export was just a silver lining in Kenya’s otherwise cloudy oil journey. Some of the numerous potholes along this journey include: failure to commence construction of an 820km pipeline from Turkana to Lamu; grave challenges of transporting oil from Turkana to Mombasa due to a poor road network; Tullow’s reported decision to sell part of its stake in Kenya’s oil blocks, which will lead to further delays in the project; imminent staff layoffs that could see up to 200 Tullow staff in Kenya lose their jobs.
Due to the poor road network, Tullow temporarily halted ongoing evacuation of 2,000 barrels of oil per day. Because of such challenges in Kenya and elsewhere across the world, Tullow’s global oil production this year will average 70,000 to 80,000 barrels per day, which will be a sharp fall from the previous production of 87,000 barrels per day. Further compounding the situation are the unsteady oil prices that have been on a downward spiral in recent years. Back in 2012 when Kenya struck oil, crude oil was going for Sh11,200 per barrel. That price has since dropped to Sh6,000 per barrel.
Despite this bleak oil picture, Turkana is awash with another massive natural resource that can potentially pump billions into Kenya’s economy without harming the environment and causing potential bloodshed. This natural resource is already plenteous in Turkana – land. Thanks to Turkana’s massive land, the county is already home to Lake Turkana Wind Power, Africa’s largest wind farm.
The real value of Turkana’s land lies not in the oil beneath it or even the wind above it, but in the land itself. Although this land is predominantly semi-arid and arid, we should aspire for expansive land reclamation in Turkana. This should be an ambitious national aspiration similar to President John F Kennedy’s goal to reach the moon. If man could walk on moon, then surely we can convert Turkana’s colossal land into a colossal cash cow. If just one quarter of Turkana is reclaimed into farmland, Kenya will produce sufficient food for all her citizens and begin earning substantially more revenue from food exports.
Our universities are full of land experts and scientists whose intellectual talents can be channeled towards reclamation of Turkana’s thousands of hectares. The moment our Governments facilitate them to unleash the futuristic power of regenerative agriculture, Turkana and suchlike counties shall never be same again.
To spice it up, Turkana land can also be used for desert sports and desert tourism. Dubai’s desert tourism has been raking in billions for years now. We can follow a similar path and offer tangible sustainable livelihoods to Turkana’s population of about 1 million and part of Kenya’s 75 per cent youth.
Accordingly, we must wake up to the reality that Turkana’s land ecosystem can deliver more economic prosperity than oil which curtails climate change mitigation targets. It is not by accident that the world’s oldest tools were discovered in Turkana in 2015. These stone tools are 3.3 million years old, which means that humans have been busy at work in Turkana for a lot longer than they have been working in Dubai. We should therefore roll up our sleeves and tap fully into Turkana’s amazing land. This can only happen when we think and act green!
– The writer is founder and chairperson, Green Africa Foundation. www.isaackalua.co.ke
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